Martin Scorsese is no stranger to period films, but not since The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) has he reached so far into the past to tell a story that resonates so powerfully today. Appropriately, his latest film, Silence, is also concerned with religious persecution and torture, this time in 17th Century Japan, where the faith of indigenous Christians and the European missionaries who travel there is violently suppressed.
Right from its opening scenes, when we witness priests being tortured by having boiling water poured repeatedly over their bodies, Silence is unforgiving. Visually, it is a powerful introduction, as steam from the hot springs drifts across the scalded bodies of the priests and the Japanese inquisitors that administer their punishment. Another priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), is on his knees bearing witness to the martyrdom of his brothers, and his sombre narration leads into the start of a gruelling tour of Edo-period Japan.
It is a bloody era in the country’s history. Christianity flourished there in the 16th Century with the arrival of the first missionaries from Europe, but their influence was quickly curtailed by the Shogunate, who feared that this religious voyage was one sign of colonialist intentions. After decades of suppression, Christianity was banned outright in Japan in the early 17th Century, and those still practising were forced underground.
Silence is based on the novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, which is itself based on the true story of a missionary who travelled to Japan to locate his fellow priest Cristóvão Ferreira. By the 1630s, over 200 missionaries and native Christians had already been executed for practising their religion. Ferreira, however, chose to renounce his faith so that his life would be spared, and this is where the film begins.
At this point, Ferreira’s apostasy is still only a rumour back in Europe. Two Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) prepare to travel to Japan to find him and bring him home. Despite their knowledge of the atrocities committed in that distant country, the two are somewhat naïve to the difficulties they will face there. Under the cover of darkness, they are smuggled to a small village, the citizens of which practise their Christianity in secret for fear of the inquisitor’s reprisals.
An alcoholic outcast called Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is key to helping them reach Japan safely. This man, we later discover, has already borne witness to the inquisitor’s brutality but, like Father Ferreira, he apostatized so that his life would be spared.
The conflict between faith and self-interest runs through the heart of Silence, and is most vividly channelled through Kichijiro. He veers wildly between piety and venality, renouncing his God one minute, begging for absolution the next. Despite his ragged eccentricity, Kichijuro seems to be the most pragmatic of all the Christians we see. It’s not being too generous to his character to suggest that he is the only one who is resolute enough to believe that the actions the inquisitors compel him to take do not truly have any bearing on his faith.
This is the biggest challenge Father Rodrigues faces. The inquisitors never physically torture him, but instead they subject him to profound spiritual torment to have him apostatize, forcing him to believe that he is the cause of the pain the native Christians suffer. The film’s title alludes to the silence of God, the fundamental clause of religion that demands true faith without any proof of its validity. ‘How can I explain His silence to these people, who have endured so much?’ says Rodrigues, desperate to offer some comfort to those who look to him as their spiritual saviour.
But this silence also troubles Rodrigues deeply, and as he witnesses innocent people being crucified, drowned and decapitated, he begins to seriously question his faith. This is resolved rather strangely, as at one point Rodrigues receives an answer to his prayers; how much of it is his imagination is up to the viewer, as is the extent to which it invalidates his faith.
Martin Scorsese has always been vocal about his own faith. Born into a devoutly Catholic family, the director originally had ambitions to enter the priesthood, before his love of cinema compelled him to pursue a career in film-making. It feels like Scorsese has poured his heart onto the screen for Silence, nurturing a story that has stayed with him for decades (he first read the novel in 1989), one that asks many of the questions he did growing up as a committed Catholic.
Long conversations about these theological issues weigh Silence down at times, as Rodrigues retraces the steps of his faith, often at Kichijiro’s prompting. Scorsese executes it with such clarity though that the priest’s dilemma becomes just one thread in a rich tapestry. He is separated from Father Garupe for a time and when his companion reappears, the struggles he has suffered become clear before any explanation is offered, so vividly is this world realised. Silence is often encumbered by the very subjects it tries to articulate, but Martin Scorsese at least makes them easy to believe in.
It is the director’s gravest film in years, and his best since Gangs of New York (2002). Andrew Garfield’s performance as Sebastião Rodrigues is committed, but you can’t help but wonder what an actor with the presence of Daniel Day Lewis or Leonardo Dicaprio might have made of the lead role. It might have elevated Silence to be one of the best of Scorsese’s entire career. Nevertheless, it is undeniably the work of a master craftsman, a film that exorcises the ghosts of history and reminds us how loudly their shrieks still echo.
Country: USA, Taiwan, Mexico Language: English, Japanese, Latin Year: 2016 Director: Martin Scorsese Writers: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, Shûsaku Endô (based on the novel by) Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata Runtime: 161 minutes